Sunday, July 31, 2005

I don’t like Mahler, he Bangs!

Around 1960 Gustav Mahler became more widely accepted as a great composer, but most people still didn’t like his music because it was too loud, too noisy. They would say, "I don’t like Mahler, he bangs!"


Music: the world: even classical music: it's all gotten a LOT louder since then. Hardly anyone complains that Mahler’s too loud today.

In the world of classical music, Bill McGlaughlin has a wonderful new daily program, “Exploring Music”. If you listen to a station that plays (or used to play) Carl Haas’s program, they may now have McGlaughlin. His comments on the music are interesting and informative, and he makes good choices about what to play. See this page at WFMT for more details.

Bonus link: the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are out for 2005, and there are some fine winners.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Thank goodness we don’t live in a police state!

A woman tried to board a plane at Logan International Airport in February with $46,950 stuffed inside her bra. That’s a bit peculiar, but if you decide to carry a lot of cash, you have to decide the best way to keep it safe. And it IS legal to carry this amount of undeclared cash on a domestic flight. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent decided that this was drug money and he took it away from her. Now she’s guilty unless she can prove her innocence to get it back. You can read about it here. The agent figured out, all by himself, that she didn't need cosmetic surgery. Perhaps there’s yet more to the story.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Steamed Everything:

On my last business trip I intended to buy a plastic microwave-safe bowl at the adjacent supermarket, to microwave vegetables. I found some nice broccoli, but the only microwave-safe containers were too large to fit in my motel appliance. But I had an idea.

Currently I cook an ear of corn by wrapping it, unhusked, in hot wet paper toweling and microwaving it. The corn steams in its package and the result is delicious. Why not do other vegetables the same way?
I wrapped the broccoli in wet paper toweling, zapped it, and enjoyed the result. I suspect a number of other vegetables (and combinations of vegetables) will repay the same treatment.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Lots of recent comment about "RealID":

The term "RealID" refers to a remarkable bit of legislation that might force every state to spend over $100 million (estimates are vague right now) to develop a much more inconvenient way of issuing driver's licenses. There's been a flurry of recent comment on realID following a recent governor's conference. If you're interested, search for RealID or "Real ID", or check out my other blog.

I packed much against my will:

The plan last week was for me to take a business trip from Tuesday through Sunday. I would be leaving from work for the airport about noon, so I started to pack Monday night at ten. Packing would be complex, owing to the duration of the trip and various special requirements.
It was sooo haaard to start packing. I knew that my software was just not ready. It seemed likely we would decide in the morning to postpone one day. How do you pack for a trip you don't expect to take yet? I hate to pack anyway. I kept telling myself, you don't have to do this, you can do it tomorrow. But by midnight I was ready to go.
And we did postpone for one day. And my cellphone just about ran out of juice when I most needed it, because I had packed my rechargers a day too soon.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Pilotcentric view of an Airport:

I view an airport as a sort of AD&D dungeon, with helpful vehicles that can carry you around instead of monsters. Getting from one useful place to another means moving through long corridors while being careful to take all the correct turns and not get lost. So I had a minor culture shock when I asked a pilot (who was buying coffee) how to get to my gate.
He pointed out a big glass window at a cluster of planes near another building. "That's where your gate is," he said. "To get there you'll need to walk up that way and around."
Of course!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

People in High Places:

I recently took a relatively exciting business trip, but that's not important now. The most memorable part of my trip was a story my limo driver told me. He explained that he's a methodical person. Coming out of school he decided that the way to make a life for himself was to spend twenty years in the military. He enlisted in the army. After seven years when he tried to re-enlist, they told him he was a trouble-maker and prevented him. So he “went across the street” to enlist in the navy. They gave him his seniority and the same rank, and he stayed in until the Gulf war began in 1991, leaving the military after 22 years. I think things worked out pretty well for him; he and his wife own their house and have five grown children. He's been a limousine driver since 1991, he loves to drive, and occasionally he gets enormous tips.

But why did the army decide he was a trouble-maker? Here's the story:

Early during his army stint, he spent time in Germany and really liked it. About the time he married, he filled out a form in which he was asked to specify the three places he would really like the army to send him to. He listed three cities in Germany. Instead he was transferred to Kansas. When his wife was eight and a half months pregnant, his transfer to Germany came through. She would not be allowed to fly, and he would not leave her alone with hardly any friends in Kansas. So he applied for a delay of transfer.

His application was passed up to his base commander, who called him to his office. “You're in the army, Sergeant; you do what the army tells you to do. You're going to Germany now.” My driver tried to plead his case, but the commander said, “Leave my office.” He turned to leave. When he reached the door, he said, a light went on in his mind. He turned and said, “I know people in high places.” “Leave my office!” the commander repeated.

He told me that when he got back to his place, he called President Nixon. “I voted for him,” he said, “and my wife voted for him.” I figured it was time to ask him for help.” He reached the White House switchboard, where an operator convinced him to talk to one of General Westmoreland's assistants. The assistant told him he should just refuse to go. “I told him, I have a military mind. I know how the army works. Without something in writing, I could not just refuse.” The upshot of their conversation was that he hand-wrote a six page letter to the general. The assistant brought it to the general's attention. Later our hero called the assistant, who told him the general had read the entire letter and signed it. “And only one person can countermand his signature,” the assistant said.

A week later he was called back to his commander's office. “Who do you know in Washington?” the commander asked. He got his delay, and his family flew to Germany when his first son was six weeks old.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

"XXXster Eggs"

The comany selling Grand Theft Auto is recovering from the embarrassment of finding that a programmer sneaked genuine porn onto the GTA DVDs. Game companies routinely try to check every Easter Egg the programmers slip in, but they don't catch them all, and this is one of the worst slip-ups. (In the original Donkey Kong arcade game, if, at the very last moment, having brought your hero to the top of the screen where you could step left to meet the heroine, you instead stepped to the right, she promptly took off her clothes. But there was not much detail to see in those good old days.)

The GTA porn was exposed by a "mod". Computer games get a lot of their sales from people who enjoy making mods or playing them, and in many cases companies will release the tools for modifying games right along with the game disks. People are wondering if game companies will react to this mess by making mods impossible, but that would be like shooting the messenger when you didn't like his message.

I don't think we've seen the last porn surreptitiously delivered with a game. I'd like to suggest the term "XXXster Egg" to refer to this sort of unwelcome surprise.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Picking up the pieces ...

I'm the kind of guy who likes to throw things across the room into wastebaskets, so when I changed a light bulb in the bathroom, the empty wastebasket beckoned. Not that I would do anything so crazy as try to score two points across the room; I just stood next to the basket and dropped the bulb into it.

The wastebasket was made of plastic. What could go wrong?

Well I'll tell you what could go wrong.

The bulb landed on the bottom of the basket, bounced gracefully up and over the side, and smashed to bits on the tile floor. That's what could go wrong.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Our Refrigerator Wasn't quite so infinite today.

Our very full fridge contained an enormous package of strawberries perched on a carton of 18 eggs. I took out the egg carton, used the last two eggs, threw the carton away, and tried to put the strawberries back in the fridge. They would not fit!
The problem: When perched on top of the eggs, the strawberries hovered over a number of other food containers. Now, when I tried to set them directly on a shelf, those other containers blocked the way. Eventually, reorganizing just about everything, I made room.
But If I'd had any sense, I would have put the empty egg carton back in the fridge and put the strawberries back on top of that carton.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The World's Shortest Personality Test:

Someone pointed me to The World's Shortest Personality Test. I picked the Saguaro Cactus picture and discovered that I am "funky, outdoorsy, and down to earth. ..." I was amused at being called outdoorsy from my fascination with Saguaros. Yes, I make a lot of effort to go see them. I'm fascinated by the hidden mathematics of the forms they assume. A few environmental nudges or perhaps finicky genes control their apparently arbitrary decisions to branch or not branch, where, when and how high. How I would love to write a computer program that convincingly models their shapes! It's pretty much irrelevant to me that they have to be outdoors.

For the next five or six days I expect to blog very little. More next week...

Sunday, July 17, 2005

When the mosquitoes bite ...

When you're outside on these hot and steamy evenings, here's a way to avoid most of the mosquitoes: keep your entire body constantly in motion. Slowly sway, swivel, step, shrug, move everything! You'll quickly notice that far fewer of the critters managE to land on you.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Big Battles in the Potter Books:

I assume the new Harry Potter book, and the last one, will - as usual - have a big magical pitched battle near the end. These battles are what I like least about the books, because every bit of them seems arbtrary: who hits, who misses, whose spells and attacks have the greater power. In general, for me, a fantasy book beguiles by creating an enjoyable sense of consistency in a made-up world. Such consistency invites what J. R. R. Tolkien called "a willing suspension of disbelief." But my willing suspension fails during these Potter wizard battles.
The trouble however is that the Potter movies have GOT to have these battles, so they better be in the books too, or else the faithful readers will complain.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Playing between the keys ...

In the early 1990's, Chevrolet leased a Corolla design from Toyota and used it to build a Chevy Nova. I drove that car, and the only remarkable thing about it was that the radio had four preset buttons. That meant I could quickly tune four FM and four AM stations, a pretty small set.
Driving to work one day I accidentally pressed two buttons at once, my finger falling between them. The radio responded by tuning a frequency I was unfamiliar with. Later that day I tried to figure out what had happened and made an amazing discovery: I had SEVEN presets for each of AM and FM! Holding down any pair of contiguous buttons acted like a separate button. I happily made presets for my seven most favorite FM stations.

Now at that time I was managing a group of psychologists at a computer company who did Ergonomics to help plan new products, and wrote user documentation to try to explain to the customers what the developers had insisted on developing anyway. The psychologists and programmers had a rather contentious relationship. So I could just imagine the radio programmer talking to the person writing the car manual:
"I implemented this neat thing! There are only four buttons, but there are seven presets because you can press two buttons at once."
"Like, you press buttons one and two together, that's a separate preset. It's terrific!"
"Okay I get it. I'm not going to write it up in the manual, it'll only confuse the car owners."
"Car owners like a car manual to be very simple. Trust me, most people who buy a Chevy Nova wouldn't understand anyway."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Efficacy of Exposition:

While we all try to figure out why so many people write blogs, one possible explanation is: it might be good for us. For example, it's generally accepted that there's a large group of homemakers – mostly young, single parents – for whom email and blogs are the primary opportunity to be a thoughtful grownup and have serious discussions.

And here's another way blogging can be good – taking the time to express something carefully can help us to understand our own lives better. I'm thinking, for example, of an entry I wrote in this blog over a year ago. I was expressing an idea I'd had for awhile, but I gave it a clear description and a handy name, and now, when life's minutia start to drown me, I'm often able to relax and remind myself, “It's just a Pipeline.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A wonderful day of chamber music and its backstory:

I was once invited to travel deep into Long Island for a day of playing Beethoven's Septet and Schubert's Octet. We spent a few hours rehearsing and then reading through each piece, with a nice break for lunch and schmoozing in between. Beethoven's Septet is a fine piece. When Schubert wrote his Octet, he intended to one-up Beethoven's Septet, and in fact he produced one of the most sublime accomplishments of classical music.

We were hosted by a violist and her family. Her father had called to ask me to play the bassoon parts, and he picked me up at the train station. We were all teenage performers or in our early twenties, decent amateurs, good well enough to immerse outselves in a wonderful musical experience.

Since I knew the violist - definitely a moody young woman - a little better than the other musicians, I discovered during the day what was going on. At that moment, she had an incredible crush on a french horn player. She wanted an opportunity to be near him, perhaps even, dare she dare it? To speak to him. Being frank with her father, she prevailed upon him to create this musicaliad to lure the horn player. And so there we were.

In fact she was tongue-tied in his presence. She did not sit particularly near him while we were playing, and when we were chatting she tended to absent herself rather than face him, to the annoyance and frustration of her parents, who had put a lot of effort into organizing, chauffering, providing the food, and so on.

That's how I got to play these two pieces in one day, a marvelous experience no matter how bizarrely it came about.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Filling the Wrist Slot:

David Pogue has blogged about the possible death of the wristwatch. While the number of people who enjoy sporting a classy time-piece on the wrist may be dwindling, we geeks know that each wrist is a useful technology slot. Since your mobile phone keeps more accurate time than a watch, what wrist technology would serve you best? Inventors and Manufacturers are trying to find killer wrist appliances; we can bide our time, look around, and enjoy.
Not too many people go for a wrist calculator, but a device that changes TV channels on any nearby set could be handy. And what about the Wrist Mobile Video Phone? We’ll have good ones pretty soon, Dick Tracy compatible.
The gadget that turns off TVs in public places goes on a keychain, but you might eventually get one in watch-form. (I wear an inexpensive watch that I use mostly for its five alarms, countdown and countup timers.)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

More Legacy Stuff:

The first small company I worked at moved to new quarters. We were packing up EVERYTHING except what was obviously garbage. I opened one closet I'd never noticed before. On the floor was a large cardboard box containing: a computer project! There were decks of punched cards (this was a long time ago), listings, a notebook full of unreadble notes and some vendor docs. I couldn't even figure out what the name of the project was. I asked around; nobody knew what it was.
So I asked my boss, could we chuck it? Well that mde him nervous. Who knows, suppose it turned out to be important? He told me to pack it up tight in its box.

I did that, but I wrote in big letters on the box: Discard this box in (and I named a year seven years in the future). I KNEW nobody would be working with punch cards by then (boy was I wrong) and surely the project would be obsolete.

Seven years later I was no longer working at that company when they moved again. A friend called and told me he had discovered the sealed box, untouched in all these years, and - as per my -instructions - junked it.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Legacy Stuff:

I helped the company I work at to swap two labs. Each of two projects had a large room full of STUFF and each would actually be better off if they had the other’s room. Mostly, moving is a mind-numbing process but in this case there was a fun part: each lab contained some equipment whose ownership was uncertain. We had to figure out whether there was a better course than leaving each bit of orphaned stuff untouched, taking up precious space. Ingenuity, and also a large garbage can, were required! This sort of thing happens when a company has a long history. The best part: there was a computer server running in one of those labs. Was anyone really using it? Could we shut it down? It took days to find someone able to tell us that it had probably hummed along unused for a year.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Blueberry and Cumin:

I often drink a milkshake at breakfast: milk plus protein powder plus flavorings. I try to vary the flavor to avoid boredom, so today I blended in about 20 blueberries and a quarter teaspoon of cumin. The result was amazing! Blueberry and cumin go together spectacularly well.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Loose Links Sink Schemes:

The New York Times just reported that the Pentagon is thinking about supporting only one major war at a time, not two as they presumably do now. I have a suggestion for the Pentagon people: (Shhhh: if you make this change, don’t tell anyone, especially the New York Times.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Google made me feel good today:

I was broadcasting my regular classical music radio show, when I decided I needed more info about a piece I was going to play. I Googled for the piece with a few relevant keywords, and the first search hit that came up, the “I’m feeling lucky” hit, was a reference to one of MY PLAYLISTS from a show last year. Yes! Google knows about my playlists. (But of course I had to look elsewhere for the info I needed.)

Monday, July 04, 2005

Are you a klutz? And if so, do you know it?

Last Saturday I watched a very nice nine year-old girl navigate the challenges of a large meal. I observed the overturned serving dish and the spills that aggregated about her and wondered whether she might have genuine klutz credentials.
A klutz has natural abilities to spill, to knock over, and generally to increase entropy in unexpected ways without any nastiness of disposition. It took me a long time to understand that I was a klutz. These days it is only the result of much planning ahead and careful thought that has, so far, made me eligible for the following epitaph: “He never destroyed a computer by pouring a drink on it.” (Keyboards and floppy disks don't count.)
In my case, understanding how the klutziness arises has helped me to live in peace with myself, and to avoid some disasters. But to avoid all of them: that's not in the nature of a klutz.
My klutzy capabilities are probably pretty universal, although I'm sure there are yet other klutzy skills that I have not attained. First, my finger movements are not very skilled. Second, when my body is in motion, I clearly do not have a good idea of where it is. My hands and several other parts are usually further from my brain than I think they are, increasing the likelihood that they will fly against objects whose nearby location is known to me. Third, having too much to think about, I am probably no longer paying any attention to the glass that I'm about to set down half off the edge of the table.
It wasn't easy to discover about my finger skills. Until I was nearly twenty, I knew no young musicians who could play music as difficult as I played; but later, exposure to virtuoso-level skills forced me, ever so gradually, to realize where the scale of physical control really was, and where I actually lay upon it. Discovering that my body is not really where I think it is has taken many more years, but I'm glad now that I know these things.

I wondered whether it might be good for this nine-year-old to learn about these curses-of-the-klutz, but perhaps she is far too young to benefit from such self-knowledge, or to bear such a heavy mental load.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Root for the home team!

I confess that I root for sports teams. And when they have good seasons, I get that peculiar vicarious pleasure from their successes. The world would be a better place if people weren't able to get so involved with teams that they do not play on, don't own and don't manage, but it takes some real willpower to avoid seeking these surreal strange satisfactions.

Now when they do badly – and I'm talking about the New York Mets here – I don't suffer too much. Instead my heart goes out to the Mets announcers on the New York City station, WFAN. I know that the success of the Mets has a direct effect on how many people listen to the station for the entire year, and directly affects the raises, bonuses, and opportunities for outside income of all the sports radio people at the station. They get quite surly when the Mets fail to play up to their potential, fail to fire a bad manager or make poor trades. There's nothing vicarious about it when they root for the Mets!

But here's what I really want to mention today. I'm getting the same vicarious sports-fan pleasure by rooting for IBM against SCO. This is a long campaign, a lawsuit likely to stretch from 2003 to mid-2007. There have been ups and downs, some great pitched battles and a few big wins. And SCO has made a number of interesting trades! But I and my co-fans root hard, give the team lots of advice, and right now we feel like we've just gotten into the playoffs. You can keep your pitchers and quarterbacks. I'll take a few fine lawyers and judges and hit to right.

Friday, July 01, 2005

I feel sorry for NSA headquarters.

I visited NSA headquarters once to demonstrate a product AT&T wanted to sell them. One is not allowed to wander in or out of this building carrying DATA, nor may one remove copies of anything. I was checked carefully both coming in and going out. On one of my exits I forgot to leave a floppy disk in my demo room; they discovered it and we took a long, anxious walk to an office where it was confiscated.

Today you can buy USB-connected memory disguised in a dozen ways, from pens to padlocks. And there are many other kinds of small, portable memory, like the compact flash memory cards. It must be getting really really difficult for the NSA to keep people from carrying data in and out, even by accident.

Remarkably, on my trip there, I DID carry out a device capable of copying a document, unnoticed. I had only used it to copy my own papers however (and only by accident). The offending device was a small notebook with a few plastic transparent sleeves inside. The sleeves were intended to hold a illustrations to use with my demo. There was a problem with these sleeves – when you put a page in them, ink from the paper gradually stuck to the plastic and left an image behind when you removed the paper. A low tech, mini copying machine!